Lawmakers looking to fix ‘lopsidedness’ in SC high school sports

Many South Carolinians with an interest in high school sports believe the playing field isn’t fair right now, especially when some of the state’s public charter
Published: Sep. 11, 2023 at 6:39 PM EDT|Updated: Sep. 11, 2023 at 10:28 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - Many South Carolinians with an interest in high school sports believe the playing field isn’t fair right now, especially when some of the state’s public charter schools are competing.

But the answers as to who’s to blame and what the solution is depends on who you ask.

Now state lawmakers are stepping in to try to balance out the playing field.

“We have problems of schools fighting amongst each other and our children being pushed out of the sport they love to play. Something is wrong,” House Education and Public Works Committee Chair Shannon Erickson, R - Beaufort, said.

The situation has ratcheted up this fall with the arrival of a new football season.

For example, in the Midlands, a handful of traditional public schools have vowed in advance that they will forfeit football games against West Columbia powerhouse Gray Collegiate Academy, a public charter school that has now lined up games against schools from outside South Carolina to fill out its schedule.

The principal of one of those schools, Columbia’s W.J. Keenan High School, said in an email regarding the forfeiture that it was “best for the morale of the student-athletes to not play Gray Collegiate,” according to Erickson.

Erickson said this is an issue she hears about constantly, from colleagues and their constituents, from all across South Carolina.

“In fact, I had an elementary school parent write me and say, ‘My child plays soccer. My child is serious about soccer, and you need to fix whatever the problems are before my child gets into that arena, and we need you to do this for our children.’ That’s how important it is,” she said.

Earlier this year, Erickson formed an ad hoc committee focused on high school athletics.

It has before it several pieces of legislation that have already been filed on the subject, including ones that would create a new governing body for high school sports under the state Department of Education, that would require charter and private schools move up classifications and play against larger traditional public schools, and that would restrict charter schools’ postseason participation.

“It’s been a very large issue,” she said. “You don’t have this many bills being filed by this many people — and honestly, they’ve come to me every week of session, asking for something with my assurance that this committee was going to take place, which I promised almost immediately when I saw all those bills being filed.”

The committee held its first meeting Monday and heard from Commissioner Jerome Singleton of the South Carolina High School League.

He told lawmakers the biggest challenge they currently face is the “lopsidedness” in the league’s lower classifications, where most public charter schools and private schools compete and where some have dominated across sports.

But Singleton said a temporary law that the General Assembly enacted in the current state budget, called a proviso, prevents the league from balancing out the playing field.

“There are some where it may have to be an adjustment made to some schools and not all schools. That proviso says that all schools have to be treated the exact same,” he said. “Well, that kind of puts us a little in a bind because, to be able to create the level playing field, we have to have the authority to address them as we see fit.”

Erickson disagrees with that interpretation of the proviso.

Kevin Mason, the executive director of the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina, said his group has not taken a stance on any bill in particular and notes not all charter schools have been dominating their competition the way some have.

But he agrees something needs to be done to address the current situation.

“I do think because we have an evolving landscape of public education in our state that it makes sense that athletics would evolve as well. So I do think that now is a great time to take a look at that,” he said.

There is no statutory deadline for this committee to submit recommendations.

But Erickson said she would like to have some proposals to present by the time the new legislative session begins in January.